EAST VILLAGE, MANHATTAN: Enmeshed in the creative focus nurturing New York City’s downtown, you sense someone deep in thought. A mind is in motion.
Feel it now, in hypnotic waves? You’re drawing closer to the workbench of Philip Glass. His symphonies, operas, film scores, concertos, solo works, sonatas, and any other arrangement you can name have altered our musical system — an output that began taking serious shape even before he became an NYC resident in 1967.
Glass has always allowed the city’s unique energy to inform and inspire his artistry. The 1968 debut performance of his experiential Music in the Shape of a Square, for instance, saw his score tacked onto the walls of the Anthology Film Archives, compelling the performers to move around the dynamic East Village space as they played. He amplified his cosmic explorations by founding the still-running Philip Glass Ensemble here in 1971, evolving constantly as a composer who could uncover rhythms where others had not yet thought to look.
Moving at a tempo Keith Haring would appreciate, Glass has steadily made NYC the birthplace of a massive amount of landmark music. His sonic DNA is currently on the move via two operas in the hopper – the latest in his portfolio of almost 30 operas to date. The first, Spuren der Verirrten, translated to “The Lost” in English, is based on a play written by the avant-garde Austrian playwright Peter Handke. Once that’s complete, he’ll turn to the Teatro Real/English National Opera-commissioned The Perfect American, based on an intriguing fictionalized biography of Walt Disney’s later years by Peter Stephan Jungk. A 2012 remounting of his landmark 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach is also on the schedule.
And now one of this great American creator’s most complex compositions – his son Zack Glass – has just launched the album Southern Skies, an enormously satisfying collage of globally-sourced pop. It’s all part of how Philip Glass keeps progressing at pulsar pace.
You’re currently writing an opera, The Lost, based on a play by the avant garde Austrian novelist/playwright Peter Handke. Why were you attracted to this project?
This is for the opening of a new opera house in Linz, Austria — they asked me to be the composer for the premier. I had to find an Austrian writer, and that’s the one I liked. Fortunately, he was alive! So I contacted him.
I had just had a big opera out there, which he saw, and he had a play called Footprints of the Lost, and he seemed very pleased with it. It’s being adapted to the stage, and I’m working on it now. The writer is Rainer Mennicken, Dennis Russell Davies is conducting, and David Pountney will be the director.
What’s the story?
It’s a fairly abstract story. The characters don’t have names, they only have letters. There’s lots of them, crossing from stage right to stage left. It’s a panorama of the human condition, you might say, but in a very Beckett point of view, with social and political commentary. The human condition is on display, sometimes in a very funny and humorous way, and sometimes a very sad way. I like it because it leaves a lot of room for the composer to flex his musical muscles.
How do you see yourself flexing your muscles here?
I’ve done a lot of operas by now. I have a very good grasp of orchestration. Balancing instruments and voices is something I’ve leaned a lot about over the last 40 years.
It’s a very choristic piece, with dance, and actors. It’s the opening night of this opera house, so it’s appropriate that The Lost includes dance, theater and opera, and all of these elements are a part of it. I have so much experience in all of these modalities of theater, and I feel comfortable in all of them.
After The Lost, you’ll be writing the opera for Peter Stephan Jungk’s The Perfect American. What is it about writing the musical story of Walt Disney’s life, albeit a fictionalized account, that’s appealing to you?
It’s about his death actually — the last four months of his life. What interested me about Disney was he was a visionary, clearly, and he had a vision that was embraced globally. He had an imagination which is very appealing to a lot of people.
At the same time he was a complicated person, not a particularly nice man, from Missouri. He was a person from that particular part of the country, with all of the positives and negatives that come with the territory.
I’ve been very interested lately in characters that are attractive and not attractive at the same time: the heroes with the feet of clay. What makes them interesting and so human is that basically they have wonderful creative minds, but they’re also ordinary people. In that way, The Perfect American pays tribute to his total humanity, and not just a cardboard character being promoted by his publicist. If you portray anything less than that, you deprive him of some depth of character which he definitely has.